Tuesday, May 07, 2013

My comment to a wonderful EJewishphilanthropy post by Rabbi Hayim Herring. 
Thank you for this wonderful piece on the timely and important topic of networks. I particularly like this phrasing “They rely on influence and not control, connections and not command.” I want to build on your piece and ask the question how do networks integrate with organizations, or put another way, how do networks integrate with hierarchies?
The reason I find this question interesting and relevant is that at this point in the life of the Jewish community the building blocks of our community are organizations (note it need not be in the future – see the example of Berkana that reorganized itself out of an organizational structure).
How do organizations integrate network thinking, values and structures? In my recent experience I see a few organizations going the mile and leading the path to become networked non profits, hybrids of sorts. And a challenge I note in the integration is the lack of clarity of how networked and how hierarchical and where the boundaries are. I think that as networked thinking penetrates an organization, a fear — or a wish — sets in that everything is now networked and flat and resentment and demoralization can set in about existing hierarchical features of the organization. In order to avoid this problem (and I may be pushing the envelope beyond where most organizations are) I encourage leadership that are moving in this direction to be thoughtful about setting expectations and try to be clear about where the boundaries and limits of network and the hierarchy exist. Its messy and evolving but I think it gets beyond the all or nothing thinking that can paralyze those who want to take the risk and bite those who are out in front. We are living in interesting times and need to figure this out together. Thank you for continuing the dialogue.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Why Do So Many Online Communities Fail?

The good news is that technology has created unprecedented opportunities for people to meet like-minded peers to learn, collaborate and support each other. The bad news is that so many of these well-meaning and inspiring projects that have enormous potential to help people and strengthen causes, are failing. Not just in the Jewish community, throughout the nonprofit world, hundreds of thousands of dollars (at least) have been spent over the past decade on designing systems that ended up not being utilized. I don’t mean to point a finger – my guess is most of us have participated in, dreamed of, sponsored, or funded one of these projects. And there is no simple answer to explain what went wrong. What I would like to present today is a way of thinking that in my experience has helped communities succeed.

The idea is that when we focus on building a technology infrastructure, we often neglect to build an accompanying relationship infrastructure. The word community can be defined as “a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society.” Those interests may be shared geography, affiliation, values, purpose, enemies or problems.

When you bring a group of strangers or acquaintances together for a gathering, a party, you don’t expect them to suddenly bond, reveal their secrets or foibles, or become best friends. So why do we expect that if we build a website or community platform which is even more remote than an in person gathering, people will jump in and participate? An online space has fewer social clues such as age, clothing, body language or accent than a face-to-face gathering. When we go online the only social clues we usually get are an email address or name, and if we are lucky a small image of the person. We all know how resistant we are to completing the profile section of online social platforms, even though it would help a lot.

So what would you do if you were a host or hostess at a cocktail party? You would circulate and get to know people, introduce people to each other that have shared interests, maybe set up some games or some interesting conversation pieces. You might encourage a few of the more gregarious folks to help make people feel comfortable. There might be some people you would not invite because they cause trouble.

In order to make online communities successful we need to pay attention to the relationships not just the technology infrastructure. We need to help people find each other and connect around shared interests.

What does relationship infrastructure consist of? Roles, protocols, norms, expectations, motivations, mission and purpose and other social structures. (Think about Daniel Pink’s work on motivation.) Note I said motivation – not incentives – research has demonstrated that incentives are only good for simple tasks not for complex knowledge based tasks. So let me be concrete about what relationship infrastructure looks like:

This past week I was working with the National Consortium of Deaf-Blindness – they are just finishing up a platform for a national community of practice that includes representative from 50 states. They want to introduce the platform to their 20 staff members. We talked about the usual approach – a technology training – letting staff get in the site and press buttons. The focus was on technology. Then we asked ourselves, how can we do this in a way that develops relationships – both relationships between people and relationships to the mission of the organization? We came up with the following protocol.
      • We paired people up – intentionally thinking about who might benefit from doing this work together – make sure someone who is technology averse is paired with someone who is technologically comfortable. Maybe pair people who work on the same team? Or maybe pair people across teams?
      • We sent them into the platform with an assignment. While they are in the site and “kick the tires” we helped them imagine what it would be like driving the car. We gave them some guiding questions to think about.
      • Name 3 ways this platform can help you forward your mission.
      • Name 2 technology improvements you would like to see for this platform.
      • Name 1 surprise from this experience.
      • We asked everyone to post these responses in the site so that others can see how their peers respond to the experience. (Thereby giving them another opportunity to get to know others – by reading their responses.)
Relationship infrastructures have to be carefully matched to the culture of the community, stage of development of the community (how well do people know each other) and many other factors. Just like technology may need to be revisited and upgraded, the relationship infrastructure needs to be revisited and changed as the community changes.

So next time you think about designing a technology platform for a community – don’t forget to take the time and effort and get the expertise you need to build the accompanying relationship infrastructure that will ensure the success of your investment.

Naava Frank, EdD, is a consultant and researcher focused on the impact of communities of practice and networks. She can be reached at naavafrank1@gmail or knowledgecommunities.blogspot.com

Cross posted from EJewishPhilanthropy May 2, 2013  check out the comments section of  this blog post on EJewishphilanthropy for some interesting follow up comments.